Recently I was asked to speak at the Rotary Club of Paducah about the role of journalism — community journalism to be specific — in the current lightning-speed media landscape.
The topic pretty much centered on the relevancy of traditional journalism.
I was also asked to talk about my background and how it shaped me as a journalist. At least a couple of questions were brought up after my talk: How did I start? Will I be writing about my experiences in the Philippines?
That question ignited the storyteller in me, and I have a lot to tell. It’s my passion, and it’s therapeutic.
To tell my story, I must start at the beginning. But where does it begin? Perhaps some 30 years ago during an assignment in the battlegrounds of southern Philippines.
When my editor picked me, a 21-year-old rookie, to cover the ongoing battle between the communists, Islamic militants and the government, I was both honored and anxious. What do I know about war coverage?
I did it anyway, thinking then that the experience would probably be worth something, someday — that it would lead to opportunities. So I went, got my clearance, hopped on a flight in a very old airplane, got on a boat, hiked for several miles and got picked up by a military vehicle. There were already some reporters at the camp and we were assigned to different huts (for security reasons).
The first few runs were somewhat boring: We stayed at the camps most of the time; talked to the troops; waited for dispatches; ate; slept, and wrote. But somehow I managed to talk one of the field commanders to allow me to tag along during one of their patrols.
I remember it was a hot and humid afternoon. We walked for hours on narrow dirt roads to open fields. With weapons at the ready, the men had just crested the opening to a green pasture when gunfire erupted. I was pushed backwards, falling onto the ground.
I froze and covered my ears as soon as I hit the dirt. The sound of gunfire was so intense I readied myself for the end. As the scene became hellish, my immediate reaction was to shoot back.
But I didn’t. I couldn’t.
I was carrying only a couple of pencils and a reporter’s notebook.
Air support came and a couple of helicopters got us out and took us back to base camp, where an accounting of the wounded and killed was done.
Several other encounters followed in the months capping that year, and slowly I felt my spirit escaping from my being. More assignments came the following year, but I often stayed inside our quarters where I could think and somehow make sense of the situation.
I came back to Manila and asked for a transfer. The answer took so long that I decided to hang up my gloves and start anew in the U.S.
There were odd jobs here and there that kept me busy but the memories of that God-forsaken war still torments my soul. Am I ever going to forget?
I have long struggled and persevered to forget those years of my life, but the images continue to haunt me. It shaped my life in ways I never thought possible, and it created a flame in my heart for seeking the truth — and the only way I know how is to write about it.
I am probably destined to never forget. In the stillness of the night, I sometimes hear the screams of injured soldiers.
Many say time heals all wounds. They failed to mention those wounds would leave scars, visible reminders of what took place and the agony endured in the healing process.
I remember everything, and it’s both a blessing and a curse. My thoughts about my experiences have been my enemy, and my focus seems to have chartered its course to parts no man should see.
I started my career witnessing atrocities and that shaped how I conduct myself both as a journalist and as a human being. I still have my pen and my reporter’s notebook, and many times those blank pages are transformed into a collection of knowledge I accumulated from great newsmen and mental photos of the horrors I’ve witnessed.
I’m no longer that 21-year-old rookie.
That’s how I started — to answer the question posed during that Rotary talk. And yes, I’ll be writing not only about my experiences, but also what’s on my mind.
For as Mohandas Gandhi once said: “A man is but the product of his thoughts; what he thinks, he becomes.”
John Mangalonzo is the editor of The Paducah Sun. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @jmangalonzo.